Tunisia's Salafist Emergence Puts New Players on Political Stage

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Tunisia has seen a sharp rise in emerging Salafist movements, but today their goals are political, not just religious as in the past, writes Ghassan Ben Khalifah. He looks at these conservative groups and their often ambiguous relations with government.

Since the ouster of Former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians have become familiar with many relatively new individuals and phenomena. Among the most prominent is the startling ascent of a number of Salafist movements, which have quickly drawn the media spotlight.

This marks a break from the monolithically negative stereotype propounded in the narrative favored by the Ben Ali regime’s media-security complex. Day after day, event after event, Tunisians are beginning to see this ‘genie’ for themselves, freshly escaped from his bottle. However, in light of the loosening grip of the state’s security forces and a "chaos" of sorts in the media, it is difficult to confirm much of what has been ascribed to the Salafists. Its transformation into yet another bargaining chip in the political process and debate further exacerbates the difficulty of coming to an objective understanding of Salafism as a phenomenon.

Weak Historical Roots

Scholars are agreed that, prior to the last thirty years, Salafist thought had no great political influence. It appeared in force in the middle of the 1990s at the same time as Ben Ali’s suppression of the Ennahda Movement. At the time, the latter — which possessed a “Qutbist”-style Muslim Brotherhood orientation and had been influenced by the Iranian Revolution — represented the greatest threat to Ben Ali’s regime.

Tunisian Salafism began in an “intellectual” form, disinterested in politics, and focusing instead on questions of religious belief, personal behavior and appearance. Tunisian elites took no serious interest in this movement prior to the suicide attacks on the El Ghriba synagogue in 2002. Subsequently Tunisia witnessed the first armed conflict between Salafists and the security forces at the close of 2006. Both in the interregnum between these two events and after them, the regime was content to approach the issue from a purely security perspective, under the rubric of “international cooperation in resisting terrorism,” especially after a growing number of Tunisian volunteers had left to fight in occupied Iraq.

After the Revolution: Coming Out of the Woodwork

The Salafists began to appear in a disjointed and ambiguous manner in the first few weeks after Ben Ali’s overthrow, when a number of bearded men attempted to close several brothels by force. At that time, the country was experiencing a clear degradation in the effectiveness of the security apparatuses and a major disturbance to governmental stability. Among the results was the release of all prisoners detained by the state under the “anti-terror law” (those accused of belonging to “Salafist-Jihadist” organizations were estimated to number over 2,000). They were granted amnesty without any investigation or review of their violent history, despite their track record in other Arab countries, and in particular Egypt.

When an uprising broke out in Egypt and in neighboring Libya, it became difficult to keep the country’s western borders under surveillance. Even the eastern border with Algeria was difficult to adequately patrol. It now appears that a group known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is normally based in the Algerian Sahara, saw this as an opportunity to transform Tunisia into a new “battlefield of jihad.” A number of armed groups affiliated with AQIM infiltrated in June 2011, before a Tunisian Army division detected their presence and clashed with them.

Many Tunisians interpreted these events as a so-called "security scarecrow," concocted by the new government in order to impose its control over a tumultuous revolutionary situation. As the Salafists began to take a more active part in public life, this impression began to recede somewhat. One of the more relevant examples were the violent protests that broke out on the eve of the elections for the Constituent Assembly, directed against a private channel’s broadcast of a film produced by a Frenchwoman of Iranian origin, Marjane Satrapi. They claimed the film constituted an “insult to the divine.”

Similar events recurred even after the elections and the victory of the Ennahda Movement. Salafist youth staged a drawn out sit-in lasting many weeks at Manouba University, demanding that female students wearing the full face veil be granted permission to take their examinations while fully veiled. Tensions were renewed once again with attempts to transport weapons over the border, attempts that culminated in a series of clashes with the security forces, such as occurred in the region of Bir Ali Bin Khalifa last February.

Some recent incidents have taken on a sectarian hue, directed against anything with a real or perceived connection to the spread of Shiism. The most visible of these took place when a Salafist group ruined a speech being given by former Lebanese prisoner Samir Kuntar and attacked the event’s organizers.

Social Environment and Suitable Political Conditions

Ben Ali's exclusive focus on a “security mentality” crumbled when he turned to a policy of "drying up the wellsprings" in the context of his fierce confrontation with the Islamist Ennahda Movement. That is, not only politicized religious thought but also the political and cultural fields were caught up in the struggle. The regime pursued a policy of economic liberalization, the main pillar of which was liberalizing trade with Europe, strengthening consumer values as a torrent of luxury goods invaded the markets. The flood of satellite dishes into Tunisian homes across all social strata embodied another manifestation of an “opening-up” policy that some regime planners viewed as an opportunity to keep the youth removed from politics.

Alongside their failure to put an end to the social gaps and to bring economic development to all areas of the country, a policy of open economics and media — but closed politics and culture — produced various unexpected side effects. Dr. Abd al-Latif Hannashi, a researcher specializing in Islamist movements, believes that the regime’s attempt to “expropriate the public square drove the youth to seclude themselves in their private space, of which the home is a vital element.” Islamic instruction offered by extremist clerics over religious satellite channels transformed into comprehensive programs that, for many, reshaped the foundations of their outlook on life and the world.

A rare sociological study covering 1,208 convicted Salafist-Jihadists shows that 89% of them were young men, and 70% were either workers (with low-incomes) or high school or college students (who typically lacked a steady income). Hannashi points out that most of the participants in this study came from impoverished regions in the Tunisian interior. This was further corroborated by Abu Ayyadh al-Tunisi, the most prominent Salafist-Jihadist leader to have implicitly admitted being tied to al-Qaeda. In an interview last year with the journalist Hadi Yahmad, he claimed that 2,500 jihadists were present in the area of Sidi Bouzi — the cradle of the 2011 revolution — during the Ben Ali era. Overall, events after the fall of Ben Ali have proven the depth of the Salafist' demographic strength in the capital's working-class neighborhoods and in the disadvantaged regions of the interior. These are the same areas that had always served as strongholds for the Ennahda Movement as well.

Yet new factors have combined to strengthen the Salafists' position. Perhaps the most ominous of these is the deluge of funding pouring into these religious associations from the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia in particular. A study titled “The Tunisian Woman in Tunis: Reality, Horizons and Progress," recently prepared by three young academics, noted the existence of around 120 such Islamic foundations. More importantly, 24 of them have an 'intellectual Salafist' background and "no less than 10 of them work with official Saudi institutions and figures." Abd al-Fattah Muru, a moderate leader of the Ennahda movement, also revealed that delegations of extremist preachers from the Gulf have indoctrinated Tunisian youth with the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence in training sessions that stretch on for months, with all the students' expenses paid.

Ennahda and the Salafists: Playing with Fire

One of the most important questions on the Tunisian political stage at present concerns the relationship of the Salafists to Ennahda. Many of the latter's opponents have not hesitated to accuse them of using the Salafists as a reserve force with which to outmaneuver their opponents or to inflame public opinion on particular issues. As for Ennahda, their accusers can be divided up into two broad categories. The first — remnants of the old regime — assume that elements from Ennahda stand behind those acts of violence widely ascribed to the Salafist Jihadists. The second group, made up mostly of the far left, believes that these elements are provoking Salafists from time to time.

While it is difficult to determine with confidence the degree of truth to these accusations, nevertheless one can offer a few broad observations. Firstly, there is a clear alliance between Ennahda and the “intellectual” Salafist movements. When Nur al-Din al-Khadimi, who is considered to be a Salafist, joined the government as Minister of Religious Endowments, Ennahda succeeded in concluding a firm alliance with the Salafist Sheikh Bashir bin Hassan, who had been educated in Saudi Arabia by sheikhs from the official religious establishment. Hassan had been living in France prior to the revolution, then returned to Tunisia where he became quite active. This alliance has experienced only occasional tremors, the most visible of which was a sharp disagreement between Khadimi and Hassan al-Ubaydi, the new Imam of Al-Zitouna Mosque. The current relationship between Ennahda and the intellectual Salafist groups — which includes the Tahrir Party, despite some minor ideological disagreement with the Salafists — can be described as a tight alliance, dominated by the former.

However, relations between Ennahda and the Salafist-Jihadist movement are both more problematic and more ambiguous. Abu Ayyadh al-Tunis, a man known for adopting rhetoric harshly critical of the Ennahda Movement, did not hesitate to describe the dynamic as one of "an undeclared truce.” He accuses them of "submitting to the American embassy" and "prostrating themselves before the secularists." Tunis has been accused of planning the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, according to a book written by French magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a specialist in counter-terrorism with close ties to French and American intelligence. Yet despite this fact, he does not recoil from issuing implicit threats to the Interior Minister Ali al-Arayedh, as long as clashes continue to take place between Salafist Jihadists and the security forces.

On the other hand, one can note a convergence in some positions held by Abu Ayyadh and Ennahda. The former spoke out against the Tunisian General Labor Union — the country's largest labor organization — which is now closely associated with the opposition to Ennahda, and called for the establishment of an "Islamic Labor Union." One could also note the presence of some Ennahda leaders at Jihadist conferences from time to time. As for the relationship on the ground, it sways back and forth. The ongoing conflict between the two for control over the country's mosques (120 mosques out of 5000 remain under Salafist control, according to the Ministry of Religious Endowments). Their bases are not prevented from meeting in protest movements demanding the insertion of a clause in the constitution declaring that legislation be based on Islamic law, or protesting against "dishonoring religious sanctities."

Of particular note was Abu Ayyadh's statement at the beginning of the current year, to the effect that Ennahda knows "what is required of it in order to satisfy [him]" and his supporters, referring to his demand that any move by the “secularists" to undermine religion be confronted. And indeed, Ennahda's bloc in the Constituent Assembly recently proposed draft legislation to criminalize any attack on religious symbols, following the violent protests against paintings said to be insulting to Islam. Given this, one might be forgiven for describing the relationship as one an attempt at mutual containment, fraught with wariness on both sides.

In conclusion, it is difficult to make a precise prediction of the horizons of the development of the Salafist phenomenon, especially before the relationships are clarified between the various movements, regional and international forces possessing influence in Tunisia. Similarly, the future relationship between these movements and the Ennahda Movement does not yet seem clear. While some, like Hannashi, believe that the Salafists will weaken with time, others fear that their tendency toward long-term planning, as well as institution-building in the educational and associative realms will only increase their power. Both opinions, however, agree that in the short-term the Salafists' future is tied to Ennahda's performance in the coming elections scheduled to be held six months from now.

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Found in: tunisian revolution, salafist movement in tunisia, salafist, ennahda party, ennahda
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